September 7, 2015

Queer Issue: On the Upcoming Stonewall Film and the Absence of Historical Transgender or Transsexual Characters on Film

By now, the fact that the soon to be released Stonewall movie directed by Roland Emmerich minimizes the contributions of transgender women of color and that key figures such as Sylvia Rivera and Miss Major are entirely absent, is fairly well known.

However let's recap things briefly. While the film is yet to be released, and thus could look very different from the previews and promotional material, the signs are not currently all that promising. The main cast is mainly white and the trailer focuses on a white gay male character who appears to be responsible for (in the movie) actually starting the riots. Although, I never heard the version where a brick thrown threw a window was what started the riots, but um, okay.

Admittedly, the trailer could be misleading, and the cast, as billed, is not reflective of who actually gets to play major parts in the film. Also, there is a character listed as Marsha P. Johnson on the film's IMDB, which will mean that Marsha P. Johnson will be the second transgender woman of color to have a character based on her appear in a major motion picture. The first (that I am aware of) being Lady Chablis in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

I have often bemoaned the straightening out of historical LGB characters when they are presented on the silver screen. A process in which bisexual or pansexual characters will either be presented as engaging in only heterosexual copulings, or the same sex partners will be minimized or ignored. If they character was gay or lesbian, then they will either wind up bisexual on screen or straight, depending.

However, I have increasingly come to notice the actual absence of characters on film based on historical or real life transgender or transsexual people.

Thus I tried putting together a list of all mainstream feature films that actually featured such characters. Documentaries are excluded. Stories based on a real life story where the transgender character was fictional were also excluded (ie: Dallas Buyers Club).

Here is the list:

-Queen Christina (1933)
-The Christine Jorgensen Story (1970)
-Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
-Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1977)
-Boys Don't Cry (1999)

Upcoming Movies:
-Stonewall (2015)
-The Danish Girl (2015)

I may be missing a few. I can't claim to be an expert on foreign films for example. And many early silent movies have been lost altogether. But even if there are a few examples that I'm missing, that's still a pretty pathetic list. If there are any, let me know, and I'll add them in.

But as it stands, of these examples, one is the story of a trans-man who ends up dead (Boys Don't Cry). Two are famous for primarily being transgender or transsexual (The Christine Jorgensen Story and Queen Christina. The remaining two characters are incidental to the main story (Dog Day Afternoon and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil).

Not that there is anything wrong with presenting the stories of tragedy within the LGBTQ or cases where the character is famous for being LGBTQ, but there needs to be a point where we move past that.

Consider as a point of comparison, the number of movies based on the lie of Ed Gein (who was not in any way transgender in real life), in which characters who were based on him (or his murder spree) are shown cross dressing or attempting to obtain sex change operations. There are 5 of them that I am aware of. (Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Silence of the Lambs, and The X-Files: I Want to Believe.) Add in sequels and the Gus Van Sant Psycho remake, and these films easily outnumber the films featuring historical transgender characters.

It's worth pointing out that there isn't exactly an absence of historical transgender or transsexual people to tell stories about. The fact that Sylvia Rivera has never shown up in a mainstream film in spite of (almost now) two films about the Stonewall Riots, is itself disheartening.
A few examples:
-Alan L. Hart: Saved thousand of lives by innovating the use of x-rays in the diagnosis of tuberculosis.
-King Ashurbanipal: Developed one of the largest collection of cuneiform documents ever and had a card catalog to find material. In plain talk: He invented the library.
-Karen Ulane: Was fired by Eastern Airlines for undergoing gender affirmation surgery and sued the airline in court before dying an airplane crash.
-We'Wha: A famous Zuni Native American who met President Groover Cleveland.
-Lynn Conway: Computer scientist whose innovations are still used in modern computers and transgender activist.
-Chevalier d'Eon: French spy and member of the Secret du Roi.
-Elagabalus: Roman Emperor who developed such a scandalous reputation that he had damnatio memoriae (the erasure of a Roman's official public record and very rarely done) applied to him.

At the end of the day, it's important to note that the stories of people across the LGBTQ spectrum are told (this should go without saying right?). We are starting to see inroads being made with prominent films featuring cisgender LGB characters based on historical figures getting made and widespread distribution. The Imitation Game being the most recent example. However, the lack of portrayals of historical transgender or transsexual individuals on film (and arguably elsewhere) is an issue that needs to be rectified.

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